Two days ago a mail bomb exploded at the office of an Islamic group in Jakarta, injuring four people including two police officers who tried to defuse it. The package was addressed to Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a liberal Islamic scholar and activist known for his criticism against radical Islamist groups in Indonesia.
Ulil, as he is widely known in the media, is the founder and former director of The Liberal Islam Network (JIL), whose office was the package’s destination. He is also a member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) political party leadership.
Ulil’s career has been controversial. His 2002 article entitled “Refreshing the Understanding of Islam” drew widespread criticism not only from fundamentalist Muslims but from many moderates as well. While Ulil’s disagreement with the idea of cutting the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers upset only the most extreme elements of Indonesian society, his argument that wearing the headscarf is not obligatory for Muslim women and support for inter-religious marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are sensitive among many devout Indonesian Muslims.
These and other issues related to religion’s role in society are hotly debated in Indonesia’s democracy. And so far, on balance, the advocates for Indonesia’s unique non-sectarian constitution are winning. Debate is not a problem in a democracy; the resort to violence for a religious cause, however, is a problem.
The mail bomb sent to Ulil is the latest addition to a worrying number of intra-religious and inter-religious attacks since the beginning of this year. Last week four houses belonging to members of the Ahmadiyya sects were attacked near the city of Bogor. This happened only a month after mobs killed three members of the same sect in West Java. Less than a week later, two churches were burned in Central Java by protesters of a blasphemy case involving a Christian man.
The most worrying aspect of this development, however, is the government’s apparent hesitation to firmly condemn and prevent these hostilities. Unlike its clear stance against violence committed by terrorists, it has been less assertive against violence committed by mobs and mass organizations. When President SBY denounced the atrocities against Ahmadiyya members in West Java and called to disband mass organizations that advocate aggression, the leader of fundamentalist group Islamic Defenders Front answered by threatening to topple SBY just like Ben Ali in Tunisia. Although the Indonesian House of Representatives considered this statement subversive and demanded the government take firm action, there has yet to be sufficient response by the administration.
Such hesitation not only undermines the authority of the government itself but delivers the wrong message to the Indonesian people. In turn, this could have a negative impact on Indonesia’s still-evolving democratic political culture. The message people receive is that democracy’s freedom of expression and assembly have empowered fundamentalist groups. As the fundamentalists gain support for their cause, others find their faith in the democratically elected government eroding.
Aside from guaranteeing freedom of expression and assembly, the government should be responsible for educating citizens that freedom of expression should not include calls to and acts of violence. Now more than ever, the Indonesian government should act firmly against extremism.